ALCHEMEA: ‘In defence of cheap outboard gear’

The latest column from London’s Alchemea College comes courtesy of Studio Diploma course co-ordinator Jon Olliffe, as he discusses cost-effective outboard gear for the studio…

As a freelance engineer able to work both independently or with artists and producers who are rightly more concerned with results than methods, it can be easy to adopt a way of working without being subjected to close scrutiny. As a lecturer at Alchemea, on the other hand, I like it when I am questioned, as it forces me to think more deeply about a philosophy, often sub-consciously developed over time. For students new to the industry, it’s helpful to have many concepts presented in black and white, whereas reality rarely works in this way. “Jon, why do you have so much esoteric outboard gear?” was the question I was recently asked. OK, he didn’t say “esoteric” but something slightly less complimentary. This is my attempt to answer that question.

To this end, I’ll outline a few classic arguments and then throw my two pennies’ worth in.

Cheap, semi-pro processors do not sound as good as their high-end counterparts; true to some extent. Most studios worth their salt have the classic, expensive units e.g. Lexicon 224X, 480L, Urei 1176, Distressor, so this is not something I need to own. I’m certainly not saying these machines should be abandoned, on the contrary, they rightly form the bedrock of most world class mixes. I suggest the more affordable effects can sit comfortably next to their more refined counterparts. Additionally, and importantly, the quirkier units that I gravitate towards often give me a more interesting and funky sound palette that is not available in the more high-end gear. For all its sophisticated menus and algorithms, a Bricasti M7 won’t sound like a three button Alesis Midiverb and nor, frankly, would it want to.

Old outboard is noisy; true, especially the less expensive units I seem to collect, but this largely misses the point. The question should be whether noise is an issue, and I’d argue less so given modern technology. We can deal with noise by judicious use of expanders and gates, but noise is no longer the enemy it once was. When we had 24 channels of tape hiss to contend with, there was a considerable hurdle to overcome, but now our digital recording systems are incredibly clean. Indeed, studies have suggested that a little noise can actually help with stereo perception and so I don’t consider this to be an overwhelming problem.

Hardware breaks down; true, but if you’re handy with a soldering iron (or friends with a good technical engineer), repairs shouldn’t be too expensive or cumbersome. If they are, then since I tend not to pay too much for the rack gear in the first place, I’ll lose no sleep if I have to buy another unit or replace it with a different one.

Of course, the alternative to using outboard processing is to use plugins. However, since a fair amount of my equipment is DSP based, this won’t be a discussion of digital versus analogue systems. For that I recommend you take a look at Justin Grealy’s excellent Audio Pro International article on this subject.

As systems change, you pay for plugins more than once; true. This can be both annoying and pricey. You pay for plugins that work with your current setup and then, inevitably, the goalposts move. New plugin formats are supported, others are dropped; I wonder how many third party plugin manufacturers will recode their products to AAX and how long this will take? Maybe the operating system changes and you’re forced to pay for an upgrade. However, the decision to upgrade is yours. If you feel the benefits of upgrading outweigh the costs, then that’s a financial decision you have made. As technology changes and progresses, programmers have to rewrite the software. This is a cost that must ultimately be paid for by the consumer.

Plugins don’t sound like their hardware counterparts; true (largely). I’d argue this point skirts around the main issue, which is whether or not the plugins sound good in their own right (at an acceptable price point). The Waves SSL plugins may or may not sound identical to the desk they’re supposed to emulate, but do you like the sound and do they do the job you want them to? If so, then they are a worthwhile purchase. Hammond organ emulations may not sound like the real thing and you may not have the ability to set up your mics in a certain fashion, but you may decide that this is no bad thing when compared to the cost, maintenance, noise and space required by the keyboard itself. Having said that, I’d much prefer to record a real Hammond if it was needed in the track and the opportunity arose.

Convolution and component modelling technology means that many plugins are sounding a lot closer to ‘the real thing’ than ever before. Nevertheless, one of the units I have is a spring reverb and I haven’t heard a plugin yet that comes close to this sound. For the sake of balance, I should point out that there are indeed some incredibly useful processes available in DAW’s that would be nigh on impossible to achieve outside the box, e.g. Beat Detective, Elastic Audio and Vocalign.

Mixes with plugins are easier to recall; true, but if you take a little extra time, care and attention, you can print all the mixes and stems to make recalling at a later date a simple and crucially inexpensive exercise, provided only relatively small changes are needed. Additionally, they may be easier to recall now, but what about in ten years’ time? Will the plugins be supported on later versions? For instance, Autotune Evo does not support earlier versions, so will future instances of software be fully backwards compatible? Try opening a fully loaded Pro Tools session with Waves plugins and automation etc that was made on the old Mixplus system on Mac OS 9 in 2002 on a modern HDX system, as I recently had to, and see how far you get. I’ll give you a clue – not far enough.

Traditional mixes sound better than in the box mixes; highly questionable. This debate will run and run. All I’d like to add is that since one of the UK’s finest and busiest mix engineers, Mark ‘Spike’ Stent, announced in a recent interview that he does a lot of his mixes in the box, a new level of legitimacy seems to be thrown behind this way of working – good enough for Spike, good enough for me, if you will.

So, what does the decision to work in the box or not really boil down to? Well, the first consideration is, as always, money. The portability and recallability of an in the box mix is a huge advantage when budgets are tight. When they are not, the advantage my hardware gives me is character. Many plugins do sound great and do their job extremely well but, to me, they can’t give me the variation in sound that my outboard can. Why this might be is outside the scope of this article, but will inevitably include a discussion of the way different companies have approached bit depths, sample rates, AD/DA convertors and input and output transformers .

The resulting spectrum of sound is important because when I work with artists I like to bring something new and interesting to the table. I prefer not to stick to a tried and tested formula (although some very successful engineers do) and I’m not going to throw the kitchen sink at every mix I make, as that would be too gimmicky. What I will do is work closely with the act to find a sound or two from my armoury, which makes sense to them and embellishes and enhances their sound, not mine. It seems that too often a new plugin will appear and the audio community will jump on it, making any interest it may have had soon lose its appeal due to its ubiquity. For me, an engineer stands out and adds something of value when (s)he does something different from the rest of the crowd.

Ultimately I believe that interesting pieces of music deserve appropriately interesting mixes. Should time and budget allow for an analogue desk mix then a well chosen, personal selection of cost-effective and quirky hardware can often result in a unique result, which would be hard to get with currently available plugins.

That’s the long answer. The short answer I gave was, “I like the way they sound.”

Olliffe can be contacted on

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